Lectures examine the call of Jesus to protect others and recognize the inherent dignity of all people
By Cherilyn Crowe
“Religious liberty is a fundamental social justice imperative,” Judge Wendell Griffen proclaimed, as he advocated for a deeper examination of how Scripture calls followers of Jesus to protect the oppressed and respect the dignity of all people.
In two presentations Nov. 12-13, Griffen drew lines connecting religious freedom and justice on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Delivering the BJC’s Lectures on Social Justice and Religious Liberty, Griffen examined issues ranging from liberation theology to conscientious objections to same-sex marriage. His message centered on the ways God teaches his people to love and fight for justice for all.
Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as Circuit Judge for the 6th Judicial District of Arkansas, 5th Division. He frequently lectures and writes about legal ethics and professionalism, religion and social justice, and public policy. He also serves as CEO and owner of Griffen Strategic Consulting.
In his first lecture, Griffen used his legal and pastoral expertise to consider whether religious freedom, equal protection and the teachings of Jesus collide or build upon each other.
Griffen reviewed recent events that create tension between the First Amendment’s religious freedom guarantee and the right to equal protection granted by the Fourteenth Amendment, such as the conflicts over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, a Kentucky clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and an increase in non-discrimination laws across the country.
But, Griffen noted he was not there to delve into divergent legal analyses of those issues. “I am more concerned, as a follower of Jesus and a jurist, in provoking serious thought and conversation about how the constitutional values of religious liberty and equal protection are understood vis-à-vis the ‘love thy neighbor’ ethic in the gospel of Jesus,” he said.
Quoting from Luke 10:25-37, Griffen told the story of the Good Samaritan and asked the crowd questions regarding how Jesus’ admonition to “love thy neighbor” squares with respect for religious liberty and equality, including how we approach non-discrimination measures.
“Whether one is religious or not, these questions force us to decide whether religious liberty, equality and the love ethos of Jesus function in a circle, collide or can somehow co-exist.”
Griffen pointed out that followers of Jesus often discuss political arguments surrounding hot-button issues, but they do not often ponder them in light of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors nor do they cite the teachings and conduct of Jesus.
“That is remarkable because the Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus illustrate that he often violated religious laws and practices,” Griffen said, providing several examples, including Jesus healing others on the Sabbath – which was a day forbidden to work – and touching a man with leprosy, even though touching a leper rendered someone unclean in the prevailing religious view.
Griffen said that, at minimum, one would expect pastors and religious leaders to ponder aloud how supporting religious exemptions for public laws – which were created to eliminate and discourage discrimination against people vulnerable to suffer – squares with the example of Jesus.
Griffen said followers of Jesus must understand that religious liberty is no excuse for discrimination and other injustices. “[W]e, who profess to love God, must also love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors whose beliefs, identities, relationships and behaviors differ from our own and who are, consequently, vulnerable to physical, social, economic and political oppression.”
As an example, he noted that Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, must be free to believe that marriage is between one man and one woman in accordance with her religion. However, as a public official, she is not free to make her deep and sincere beliefs the official practice of the county. “She can find authority for honoring the ideal of equality and justice not only in the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the law; she can find authority for doing so also, and more fundamentally, in the life and ministry of Jesus,” Griffen said.
In his second presentation, Griffen took that instruction and confronted ethical and discipleship issues in the 21st century.
Griffen said evangelical followers of Jesus “have not theologically, hermeneutically and ethically considered religious liberty to be part of the deep and wide justice imperative that appears throughout Scripture.”
While the freedom to exercise religion – or not – has long been considered a fundamental human right, Griffen said many view religious liberty in the United States from the perspectives of Western European and U.S. history. Instead, he argues that the religious liberty ideal has biblical antecedents in the Hebrew Testament, gospels of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.
Citing passages throughout Scripture, Griffen focused on the Exodus narrative and how it exposes “a struggle for religious, social and physical liberty,” referring to it as a “vivid illustration about the quest for religious liberty and the collision of divergent systems of religious belief.”
In listing cases in the New Testament, Griffen pointed out how Jesus often pushed aside sectarian and ethnic animosities in pursuit of redemptive fellowship, including his intra-faith dialogue with Nicodemus and encounter with the woman at the well.
“Our sacred writings illuminate God’s concern that people be free to live, work and be accepted … as persons of dignity and worth, not deviants, threats or commodities for private and social exploitation.”
Moving into the concept of liberation theology, Griffen said he agreed with those who argue that the Bible presents God as suffering alongside oppressed people. He noted God identified with the enslaved people in Exodus, not the Egyptian empire that oppressed them. “[E]vangelicals primarily consider religious liberty an essential attribute for a well-ordered society, not a moral and ethical imperative arising from the divine passion for liberation from all forms of oppression,” he said.
Griffen gave examples – including the Civil Rights and the Black Lives Matter movements – of why “people struggling against oppressive power view claims of evangelicals about religious liberty with disappointment, mounting distrust, and disgust.” He said it appears many leaders care about religious liberty because they want to be free to proselytize their religion, not because they believe God cares about liberating all people who suffer from any oppression.
As he closed his presentations, Griffen urged evangelical followers of Jesus to break from the practice of supporting “soul liberty” while opposing the demands from others for life, liberty and equality.
“The love of God about which we preach, study, sing, write, teach and pray demands that followers of Jesus love God enough to protect our neighbors,” he said, “including our neighbors with divergent lives, beliefs, behaviors and struggles, as much as we cherish our own religious liberty.”
“Respect for religious liberty must be understood, affirmed and be bottomed in the deeper and wider love of God, the love that inspires one to recognize and respect the inherent dignity and equality of all persons.”
The lectures also provided opportunities for the campus and community to engage in religious liberty issues. After the first presentation, Fuller’s Hak Joon Lee, professor of Christian Ethics, offered a faculty response regarding evangelicals, social justice and his points of agreement and disagreement with Griffen’s remarks. On Thursday night, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker and Griffen led a religious liberty discussion at First Baptist Church of Pasadena, which included an examination of the differences in Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, why Sharia laws do not trump civil law, and the Baptist heritage of religious liberty.
This event was the first of a series of lectures designed to increase the demographic reach of the BJC. Future lecture series will take place on different campuses, with the goal of bringing religious liberty discussions and the BJC to diverse communities.
From the November/December 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.